The American States during and after the Revolution, 1775-1789

By Allan Nevins | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FIVE THE CONSTITUTIONS IN OPERATION: THEIR REVISION

The years immediately following the drafting of the first Constitutions were a period of rapid experiment and change. By 1800 the sixteen States then composing the Union had adopted twenty-six Constitutions. The year 1793 found three, New Hampshire, Vermont, and South Carolina, under their third form of organic law, and four others, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Georgia, under their second. These rapid substitutions were necessary. Jefferson said, in explanation of the defects of Virginia's Constitution, that "the abuses of monarchy had so filled all the speeches of political men that we imagined everything republican that was not monarchical. We had not yet penetrated to the mother principle that governments are republican only in proportion as they embody the will of the people and execute it."1 In general, it was found that the crude early Constitutions were most workable in those features in which they followed the colonial governments, and least practical when they departed widely from them.

While it required a good many years to demonstrate the inutility or danger of such innovations as the Council of Censors in Pennsylvania or the Council of Appointment in New York, the errors made in the application of old principles of government were soon evident. A series of wartime shocks taught the States that their legislatures were much too strong, their executive departments too weak. The principle of balance had suffered no more than that of democracy. The constitutional definition of the new electorate, it was found in many States, was too narrow. Complaints arose, again, that important liberal principles had been stated and then not applied at all. The bills of rights in particular laid down generalizations upon equality of representation, religious freedom, and the debarment of property from special privilege, which the Constitutions failed adequately to put into effect. A number of

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1
Thorpe, "Const. Hist. of the Amer. People," II, 62.

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